The Scottish Question

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The Scottish Question

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What would William Wallace-depicted in the blockbuster movie Braveheart-think had he lived to see citizens of Scotland decide by a three-to-one margin to establish a national parliament-in the long run leading to events that could possibly threaten a union with England that has lasted nearly three centuries? Further, would he have been happy to see Scotland united with England in the first place?

On the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Stirling Bridge (1297), where Scottish forces under Wallace's leadership defeated the English and achieved a measure of self-rule, voters took back the legislative power given to England in 1707. It was in that year that the United Kingdom was formed with the union of England, Scotland and Wales. The Scottish parliament was dissolved and merged with the English parliament at Westminster. This came nearly a century after the English and Scottish crowns were united under King James of the house of Stuart.

The United Kingdom-where to and where from

Elections in 1999 will set up a new Scottish legislative body with the authority to enact laws governing many aspects of Scottish life. The new body will have responsibility for most domestic-policy matters including education, health care, housing, transportation and criminal justice. The British government will retain power over the national economy, currency, national defense and foreign policy. Scotland will remain a part of the United Kingdom, but with a new role and new responsibilities.

What this will mean for the future of England is a fiercely debated issue with many unknowns. While some observers in the two countries feel this will strengthen both England and Scotland, others fear it will diminish Britain's already-uncertain position within the greater European community. The role of those Scottish members remaining in Britain's parliament remains to be determined as questions arise over their influence on parliament's policies.

To understand the present significance of this event, we must go back to the union of 1707 and understand how British history developed from that point.

The union of England and Scotland in 1707 is best appreciated through an understanding of what was happening on the greater European scene. The long and costly war of the Spanish Succession was within six years of a conclusion. This war pitted England in a Grand Alliance with the Netherlands and Prussia against France and Spain for control of the Continent. Scotland, always desirous of its liberty, disputed the succession of England's monarchy, traded with the French and asserted independent diplomatic powers.

As the fate of Europe hung in the balance, Queen Anne's ministers enacted the Alien Act of 1705 against Scotland. This stated that Scotland must accept the Hanoverian succession or face reduction in status to a foreign nation. Scots would be denied the normal rights of English citizenship, trade would be stopped, and Scottish ships caught trading with the French would be sunk.

Naturally, the pace of negotiations accelerated and resulted in the Act of Union of 1707. This provided for one British parliament at Westminster along with free trade and equal taxation. The navies and militias were combined into one British military authority.

Empire and uncertainty

With the Scottish question settled, England could turn full attention to the continent and settling the war. Through a series of negotiations the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in 1713. This treaty helped set the stage for Britain's rise as an empire. Gibraltar and Minorca in the Mediterranean, Newfoundland in Canada, and St. Kitts in the West Indies were ceded to Britain, thus propelling her to the greatest maritime power in the world.

Britain's companies and ships had free rein to exploit and move much of the world's commerce. The French, their continental power broken, were also weakened in the New World. England could lay claim to being the greatest commercial and financial center in the world, and the British empire began to form.

The recent vote by Scotland can be better understood within the broader setting of European relationships. Great Britain's role in the rapidly evolving European state is still uncertain. Many of its leaders caution against yielding sovereignty in economic and political matters to the greater European community.

The centralization of political and economic power on the European Continent is the very thing England has historically sought to prevent. But Europe's effort to unite continues today and is on the verge of taking a major step forward with the creation of a single European currency by 1999.

Great Britain's role in the developing European framework is still important. Balancing the continental influence of France and Germany has been its traditional role. For England to carry any influence in the new monetary structure, as well as other political matters, she will need to be a full partner and also enjoy the stability of its Commonwealth.

More than influence in the European Union may be at stake in the long term. In the recently published book Europe Adrift, analyst John Newhouse quotes a British diplomat: "... Britain's decision to keep its distance from the EU ... 'was a far more fatal error than Suez. It enabled the European Community to develop as a continental system, with France dominating its institutions ... Britain has influence on American policy to the extent that it still has some power and influence itself in various parts of the world'" (Pantheon, New York, 1997, p. 196).

Will this step into the unknown by the commonwealth state of Scotland hinder Britain's status within this new union? Are we witnessing a further decline in Britain's influence over world affairs? Do the Scots, in the words of Norman Davies, "possess the power to destroy the United Kingdom, and thereby to deflate the English, as no one in Brussels could ever do"? (Europe: A History, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996, p. 1134). GN